review of They Died by Pearse’s Side.Guest Writer Simon Smith with a
I was on my second guided tour of Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin recently when I picked up a book from the new 11 million euro visitors centre. The cemetery is well worth a visit with many fascinating stories behind the graves on the guided tour. 1.5 million people are buried there. 32 of these people are volunteers who fought in the 1916 Easter Rising and it is their stories along with the 14 buried at Arbour Hill and around 20 or so others buried elsewhere that are the subject of Ray Bateson’s 2010 book entitled They Died by Pearse’s Side.
The book is published by Irish Graves Publications and is a praiseworthy attempt at documenting the stories behind the volunteers who died during the Rising. Seven specific groups fought on the Irish side the most well known of which would be the Irish Volunteers, the IRB, Cumann na mBan, Na Fianna Éireann and the Irish Citizen Army and two lesser known groups: The Kimmage Garrison and the Hibernian Rifles. There were five identifiable groups on the British side also, mainly British military and police organisations. The British Army numbered 2500 in Dublin when the Rising began, growing to 20,000 during Easter Week. Many members of the British Army were Irishmen of course, while scores of men born in England fought on the Irish side.
The first deaths occurred on the 21st of April and the last on the 3rd of August. The first three were men who died whilst driving off a pier on their way to meet up with Roger Casement and the last death on the 3rd of August was of Casement himself. The explanation of the car’s occupants’ demise is detailed and together with a photograph of the pier it is easy to see how the accident occurred.
The book is fascinating and gives a glimpse of how life was then and how the Rising was fought. With a focus on the background of each casualty and how they fitted into the overall picture I often found myself hungry for more detail. However, due to the fact that most accounts of the fighting were given 25 years after the event this lack of elaboration is completely unavoidable. Contemporary accounts and newspaper reports are used when available and add to the veracity of the text.
Apologies for not elaborating on the following stories but I felt I had to mention them. They are worth following up:
The story of how 14 non-combatants were murdered and buried in their own houses by the British Army after the fighting ended is shocking in its brutality but not surprising. The British combatants lost many more men than the Irish rebels and many of the former were angry and therefore dangerous. However, some of the volunteers speak well of their adversaries in some places, for example saying they fought “cleanly” and with “bravery” at Clanwilliam house.
The O’Rahilly’s story is an interesting one. He tried to stop the Rising but once it went ahead he took part with vigour, fighting to the death.
Also described is how a party of 15 armed rebels on bicycles engaged various groups of British Soldiers as they travelled around the capital.
The book mentions John MacBride who featured in W.B. Yeats poem “Easter 1916” as the “drunken, vainglorious lout” who redeems himself after his mistreatment of Maud Gonne by giving his life for Ireland.
The tale of the “First Martyr”, the only female on the Irish side killed during Easter week and given the epithet by Éamon Ceannt, in particular deserves further reading due to the chronicles of her famous ancestors.
Patrick Pearse was distressed to see the number of civilian casualties and this led him to encourage the others to agree to surrender. He declared that 'If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom then our children will win it by a better deed.'
As mentioned above, the leaders of the Rising who were executed are buried at Arbour Hill. It is important to remember that of those executed by the firing squads James Connolly was only one of three who were invalids. I won’t go over the details of their stories but they are particularly poignant.
The sequence of events is described first by battle site and then chronologically and photographs of people, places, buildings and memorials are placed helpfully throughout the book. The witness testimonies from fellow rebels are fascinating and any discrepancies between these and other accounts whether they are from individuals, newspapers or academia are compared and contrasted in such a way that you can usually draw your own conclusions. The author may seem pedantic at first with his use of the phrase “different version” of events when describing different accounts when there are no obvious contradictions but this approach is what helps you decipher the chronology and spot any inconsistencies when they do occur. I found myself having to pay keen attention or re-read certain paragraphs to clear up intermittent confusion and occasionally I was left unenlightened.
The book details the names of those who lost their lives fighting for Ireland, who they were, their occupation, site of their grave, notes of any memorial and vitally how they died. Some of the fallen rebels were buried on poor ground. Some participants’ identities remain unknown. Nevertheless the chronicles of even the lesser known or unknown soldiers are fascinating. It is important that 100 years on, these men and the others who fought beside them are not forgotten, not for any political reason as any political reason can be argued against but for the historical record which is invaluable.
They Died at Pearse’s Side is a superb read, a source of interesting, stirring stories the richness of which can only be hinted at. Ray Bateson thoroughly exhausts and collates the knowledge of the subject and he delivers an extensive historical record as accurately as possible.
The fear I have coming up to the centenary of the Rising is that authors may exploit the demand for reading material by writing books purely to profit but I haven’t discovered any examples so far. I suppose you will have the journalists’ efforts; the academic books; some written by experts in the field or by descendants and the unwelcome efforts- those of the Revisionist school or maybe the unscrupulous who exploit the dead and their cause.
This book is a fine example of a worthy read - informative, fascinating, practical and detailed. The atmospheric descriptions used paint a vivid picture, which together with examples of the mindsets involved present a sad indictment of the Ireland of today which is a far cry from the tenets of the rebel leaders who gave their country a chance.
Ray Bateson, 2010, They Died by Pearse’s Side. Published by Irish Graves Publications. ISBN 978-0-9542275-2-4.